The principal of Fair Trade came into vogue in the 1980s when Anita Roddick formed the Body Shop chain based on her own exhaustive confirmation that everything purchased and used in the manufacture of her cosmetics had been traded fairly. It was a guiding principal in her business ethic that Dame Roddick used the produce of small scale suppliers from all over the world, and ruthlessly drew attention at every turn in the way to corporate exploitation of peasant farmers and producers.
This is an odd principal to apply to an industry such as tourism, but in developing countries, and in Africa in particular, great efforts have been made, and significant advances achieved, in spreading the bounty of high yield eco-tourism to local communities. This presents the opportunity for local people to actively partake in and receive the financial benefits of tourism as an incentive to preserve their natural environments.
In Kilimanjaro, and in the other two main mountain ranges in the region, this has been most notably achieved in the mandating of local guides and porters as a basic requirement for any group embarking on a climb. In principal this ensures that local communities benefit from tourism revenues, but in practice it has often resulted in quite cynical exploitation.
These men are clearly ill-equipped to contemplate climbing to Barafu Camp or Kibo Huts above 18 000ft
On this blog I have made fairly liberal use of National Geographic as a source for reliable and authentic information, and once again I have found National Geographic at the forefront. In a 2003 article entitled Carrying a Heavy Load some startling facts were exposed. These are some:
Many porter deaths (an estimated 15-20 annually) go unreported thanks to the unwillingness of TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks Authority) to release accurate figures.
The main reason is ‘price gouging’, and the resultant savings gained by unscrupulous local outfitters providing porters with little or no high altitude survival gear.
There are recorded instances of porters ailing with edema or other altitude related maladies left on the side of the trail to be revived by better equipped groups or sent down alone without support or monitoring.
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Unwilling to risk their jobs being handed to a large pool of desperate and willing men sick porters often persevere at great risk to themselves.
Porter deaths are principally from edema or hypothermia.
Kilimanjaro porters are usually lowland farmers with little or no mountain tradition.
For every death there are hundreds of close calls and narrow escapes.
Fair Trade in Kilimanjaro
There is no doubt that Kilimanjaro is an expensive mountain to climb, but certain questions are worth asking as you ponder the great variety of prices on offer, and what they represent.
Can my outfitter realistically mount a Fair Trade expedition at US$1000/1500 per pack?
Can I take it as a given that because my guide/outfitter assures me that the highest standards are being applied, that they are?
Do I want to contribute to the abuse and exploitation of local people for the sake of saving US$500-US$1000 on a budget climb?
Should I adopt an ‘out of sight out of mind attitude’ as I bed down in my down-sleeping bag knowing that my porters have been equipped with a plastic bin-liner and a blanket?
The answers to all of the above are, or at least should be no!
An inescapable fact of East Africa is that it is one of the most corrupt regions in the world, and in a business as potentially lucrative as tourism, with the degree of competition that exists, corruption on the ground is guaranteed. Human exploitation is also widespread throughout Africa, be it in the recruitment of child soldiers, or the demands for sexual or economic favors from local UNHCR staff in exchange for the registration of women and girls as refugees, or the simple extortion of would be migrants for perilous boat journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe. It should not then come as a great surprise that with the sheer numbers of people employed in the Kilimanjaro porter industry that many will fall victim to similar exploitation.
What can I do?
The main culprits in this are the local Tanzanian climb outfitters. There are certain Tanzanian outfitters with a well documented reputation for this sort of behavior, and although it is not the business of this site to point the finger and name names, there are a few things that you can do to limit the practice.
If you want western standards to be applied then work through a western outfitter. The money you pay still filters down to the same people on the ground, but western outfitters ensure their reputations by holding their local suppliers to acceptable standards. If it costs a few hundred dollars more, then at least you will not be confronted by a freezing porter at 15000ft dying of hypothermia.
Remember that if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys. The less you pay the less your mountain support crew will likely get. The outfitter will be paid, and TANAPA will be paid, and it is likely to be your guides, assistant guides and porters who will be sold short.
The Good News
TANAPA has been stung in recent years by revelations of corrupt gate officials and very lax standards. These days the agency is placing a lot more emphasis on monitoring local operators and issuing licenses to keep the most blatant bottom feeders off the mountain.
There also now exists after some 20 years of high volume tourism a pool of guides that have worked their way up through the ranks and have emerged with authentic credentials and solid expertise. These men are in high demand and are relatively well paid, and have quite rightly contributed to the heavy rate of price increase over the last decade. TANAPA still accepts very low individual standards as basic, but it can at least be said that the opportunity exists for motivated newcomers to rise through the ranks and aspire to work for and with some of the top providing outfitters in the market.
Perhaps the best news has been the arrival in the region of the International Mountain Connection which, originally conceived as a welfare and support body for Nepalese porters, has opened up in Kilimanjaro offering local porters free survival gear as well as first aid and English lessons.